There was hardly an empty seat at last Thursday’s education forum in St. Albans that gave parents a chance to address Department of Education officials and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. A long line of people wrapped around the room in the St. Albans Family Center on Linden Boulevard. Some representing P.S. and I.S. 208 wore blue T-shirts that read: "We educate the whole child."
When parents reached the microphone, they challenged officials to explain the department’s complex budget, questioned the placement of a site for suspended students inside I.S. 231 in Springfield Gardens, and called for better department communication with parents.
Assemblyman William Scarborough organized the event that also included City Councilmen James Sanders and Leroy Comrie, Assemblywoman Michele Titus, and state Sen. Shirley Huntley.
Anger with the plan to place a suspension site inside I.S. 231 dominated the discussion for parents and elected officials. "What are we going to do to get real power into the hands of the parents?" asked Sanders during the three-hour-meeting. "A sign of us being powerless is I don’t think there was ever a dialogue," he said referring to the decision to create the suspension site.
Doctoroff, who was the target of many parents’ frustrations, acknowledged the department’s failure. "We should have done a better job in consultation," he said, adding that while there should have been better parental notification about the change, by law, the department must establish the sites.
Doctoroff told the crowd the students would not be ones suspended for violent behavior, but parents were not convinced and argued that bringing in troubled students will disrupt the school.
When one parent asked why it seemed that suspension sites were always placed in minority communities, Doctoroff disputed this by reciting a list of other suspension sites in Flushing, Long Island City, and Far Rockaway. It did not quell the crowd.
A. Austin, president of the I.S. 231 Parent Teacher Association stood outside the building and passed out a petition in protest of the plan. During the meeting, she directly addressed education officials and Doctoroff. "231 has been improving," she said. "To have this site, it’s not good. We need an alternative." She added that shuttling problem students from one location to another is not solving the cause, and "we need someone to determine why the children are constantly being suspended."
Curriculum content was another source of contention for parents. Elvis Gregory asked why students aren’t taught how to be productive and ethical citizens, while another parent questioned how students learn spelling and grammar. Andrea Smith said schools would be better if principals stayed longer, and "if the principal knows this is my school for five or six years, they will take ownership." Another parent voiced her disgust with the condition of school facilities, as another expressed her disagreement with parent coordinators being appointed by principals.
Dorita Clarke runs a test preparation program for students in Southeast Queens. When she stepped up to the microphone, she urged the department to cultivate more students for college.
"The PSATs should be given to seventh- and eighth-graders," she said. "We are losing our kids."
Doctoroff said since the decision was made to give the PSATs to tenth and 11th graders free of charge, there has been a 45 percent increase in the number of students taking it, particularly among minority students. Crime in schools was also on the minds of parents, even though Doctoroff maintained that the number of incidents had declined in recent years.
"I want to state a fact," said a mother. "The principals have been underreporting incidents in schools. "They don’t want to increase reports because they don’t want it to go against the school." Çhe biggest issue of the evening –– the placement of a suspension site inside I.S. 231 –– elicited so many negative reactions, Doctoroff agreed to meet with parents in a separate meeting next week.